Gone With the Wind

01:47PM Dec 11, 2019
Historic photos from North Dakota
Settlers looking for additional income found money collecting and selling buffalo bones. The insatiable market subsequently stole nutrients from North Dakota's soil.
( Photos: State Historical Society of North Dakota; Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress )

Buffalo bones don’t lie, wind holds no secrets and both tell a disheartening farming tale of the alarmingly rapid loss of agricultural lifeblood. Farming history is replete with triumphs — as well as bitter lessons still echoing today.

The glaring story of soil loss in North Dakota, stressed by the work of researcher Dave Franzen, is a signpost account of cost and consequence. Even today, after a grower works a Dakota field and looks in the back window, the soil appears as black as it did in years past. It is not. As bluntly summarized by Franzen: “People can’t believe how much soil we once had in this state. The really rich stuff is long gone, and some farmers never realize that.”

The Bone Collectors

Sun-bleached and scattered by the millions across the Great Plains, buffalo bones once lay ”in situ.” The bones became cheap fodder for a host of industries, and were used in sugar refinement, dry lubrication, bone China and fertilizer production. The nutrient level of bone is roughly 3-15-0 (15% phosphate).

During the heyday of buffalo bone use, 1880 to 1892, settlers found a lifeline as bone collectors. Sold between $5 and $20 per ton, millions of tons of bones were gathered, hauled to railheads and shipped east, bound for the grinding boxes or chimneys of factories.

In Kansas, state records note the export of 3.2 million tons of buffalo bones. Franzen estimates a similar export total for North Dakota.

The odd story of buffalo bones, finite resources and loss of phosphate was exceptional, with no causal agent related to agriculture, but the circumstances catapulted Franzen toward the past.

“The loss of phosphate through buffalo bones is only the tiniest window on a bigger story,” he says. “When you look at the devastating impact of wind and erosion over the last century until today, and the loss of phosphate and other nutrients, the details blow farmers away.”

Dust in the Wind

North Dakota, especially the western half, is among the windiest regions on the planet. When the Dust Bowl arrived in the 1930s, the powdered soil was prime for flight, and it blew away in cataclysmic amounts. Franzen’s assessment of North Dakota losses during the 1930s include:

  • An average of 5" of topsoil was lost on 10 million acres of farmland (16 billion tons of soil).
  • 9.1 million eroded acres were deemed no longer economically viable for crops or livestock.
  • The equivalent of 40 years of phosphate applications at today’s rates were lost.

Beyond the 1930s, the consequences of topsoil loss are startling, based on Franzen’s projections.

“If we’ve lost only 3" of topsoil since 1940 from cropped acres, that still means 5 million tons of phosphate and 16.5 million tons of nitrogen,” Franzen says. ”Taken at today’s rates, that equates to 30 years of N and P application.”

Prior to settlement, North Dakota’s original topsoil ranged from 18" deep (organic level 6%) in the western part of the state to sometimes 3' deep (organic level 7.5%) in the eastern side. About 200 years of zero-level soil loss and  continued phosphorus application would be required to take today’s North Dakota ground back to 1890 nutrient levels, Franzen projects.

“We’re down to 6" deep and 2% organic matter in some spots,“ Franzen says.

Is it possible to stop the massive soil escape?

From Franzen’s perspective, a tractor load of stopgap measures and temporary Band-Aids all play a role, but the bottom line is no-till.

“The evidence is there for a better way through no-till, but it gets disheartening in winter when we get blizzards and the wind starts to blow, and we watch the snow turn black,” says Anthony Thilmony, who no-tills 2,000 acres in southeast North Dakota. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many times you tell a person how many tons of soil are leaving their land, along with nutrients; the bell just doesn’t ring.”

Economics and Emotion

Franzen believes North Dakota farmland generally requires six years of no-till to change soil biology. “The past shows soil fertility either gets better or worse, but never really stays the same. Buffalo bones and the Dust Bowl are examples that connect economics and emotions.”

The history of topsoil depletion proves the danger of sacrificing the permanent on the altar of the immediate, Franzen contends: “That’s not dirt you see leaving the state, that’s the future of farming.”

To read more lessons farmers can take away from the Dust Bowl, visit AgWeb.com/dust-bowl